"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Nuclear Refurbishment Problems Reported

Scott Miller

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) March 2 released a report detailing several cases of mismanagement within two of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Life Extension Programs (LEPs). This report follows NNSA press releases in January and February announcing the completion of the B61 warhead refurbishments and partial completion of the W76 warhead refurbishments.

The GAO report provides insight into problems encountered during the refurbishment of the B61 and W76 and makes recommendations for the NNSA, a semiautonomous part of the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense to improve their LEP management.According to the report, the NNSA underestimated the cost of the B61 program and established a rigid timetable for completing the refurbishments. The timetable, which did not take into account technical setbacks or other unforeseen problems, forced production officials to take shortcuts and left little time for testing the new materials. The report also explains that the timetable did not allow for production of certain materials for replacement purposes because it was thought existing materials would be reused. When some materials were deemed not reusable, particularly some of the plastic components, the NNSA began development of an alternative solution, which contributed greatly to an increase in cost. Later, however, when U.S. Strategic Command, responsible for deploying the U.S. nuclear arsenal, reviewed its military needs, it determined that it would be acceptable for the NNSA to reuse these components.

Despite these difficulties, the NNSA announced in January that the B61 refurbishments had been completed one year ahead of schedule. (See ACT, March 2009.) The report indicates that the NNSA can claim little credit for this achievement. In addition to the change in U.S. Strategic Command's military needs, two other outside factors allowed the NNSA to complete the B61 refurbishment. First, the NNSA was able to reuse materials from decommissioned B61s. Second, the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint Defense Department and Energy Department oversight organization, decided to reduce the number of B61s in the U.S. stockpile, which decreased the number of bombs that needed to be refurbished by two-thirds. All told, the NNSA refurbished one-third of the B61s that were originally planned, at nearly twice the cost per unit.

The refurbishment of the W76 warhead was also fraught with program mismanagement. The GAO report explains that the NNSA underestimated the time needed to manufacture "fogbank," a classified material necessary in W76 development. Due to an unrealistic timetable, disagreements over safety procedures, and poor management oversight, the first refurbished W76 was not completed until September 2008, a full one year after its intended completion date.

To improve NNSA refurbishment of the remaining W76 warheads and successfully manage future life extension efforts, the GAO issued a series of recommendations. It recommended that the NNSA develop a reasonable timetable for the remainder of the W76 refurbishment that allows time for technical setbacks and sufficient testing. It advised the NNSA to account for the likelihood of these setbacks in its initial cost estimates so it does not incur cost overruns. Finally, the GAO urged that the NNSA coordinate with the Defense Department to assess military requirements and address any budget or scheduling issues before the programs begin.

The Energy Department generally agreed with the GAO's recommendations and cited the need for more funding to properly implement a more comprehensive management strategy. The Defense Department also by and large agreed with the recommendations while clarifying the military services' roles in coordinating activities with the NNSA.